Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wheezy and the Weasel

One of the joys of a fresh snowfall here on the hill is seeing the tracks of the local wildlife.  When I go out to the barn in the morning following a snowfall or flurry, there will often be a single line of tracks following one of the paths, perhaps stopping by the barn to look in and say hi to the horses, then continuing  to the manure pile or over to the tractor shed.  Sometimes I am able to identify the tracks with my little laminated animal tracks card, looking like an overgrown and inept Girl Scout trying to tell if it is a “hopper” or a “jumper.”  Mostly, I think I am identifying fox, as we have a large population in this area, commonly seen in my headlights running across the road at night.

Two weeks ago, we finally had an overnight snow that could be classified as a “fall” and not just a “flurry.”  Sure enough, in the morning there were tracks by the barn, but there appeared to be more than one animal.  Usually if there is more than one set of tracks, they are of deer, not predatory animals.  The wind had obscured the pattern of the prints just enough that I couldn’t quite make them out. 

At the chicken coop, there was an abundance of tracks all around the building.  The girls are locked in every night so as to keep them in and other critters out.  I had never seen so many tracks around the coop at once.

When I opened the door, there was a very dead, very frozen bird on the floor, and one injured bird standing over to the side, looking ready to give up the ghost at any minute.

I picked up the dead bird and looked it over.  Nothing bloody, no real noticeable damage.  Just… dead.  And very frozen.  She was a chicken in heavy molt, probably the weakest of the birds at this point.  If you have ever seen one of those novelty rubber chickens, well, sorry, that’s what she looked like.  Except you probably could have pounded a post in the ground with her.

I scooped up the injured bird, and for a moment thought she was going to die in my arms.  No resistance at all, eyes half shut, and bloody all up and down the side of her neck.  Everyone else seemed fine.  I held her in the warmth of my coat for five minutes or so, then dug out the big cat carrier, filled it with hay, and put the chickie in it.  I brought her into the house and put her in our “cold room” – our little office in the house that, despite all our insulating attempts, is colder than Siberia once the summer is over.  We usually just keep the door shut throughout the winter months.  I put her in there so she was a little warmer than outside, but not so much as to acclimate to indoor heat.

At that point, all Larry and I could figure was there was something outside the coop that raised a ruckus and sent the residents into a panic and the weak link keeled over and the other got injured, and chickens being the sympathetic souls they are, the others started picking on her once day dawned and they saw fresh blood.

That night I brought the injured chickie into the kitchen and set her up on a towel on the counter and took a good look at her.  Her eyes were bright, which was pretty much the only improvement, albeit significant.  She remained immobile and we stared at each other for a while.  Her chest seemed extremely swollen and she shrank away from my touch on one side of her body.  I cleaned off the side of her neck with warm water, Q-tips and cottonballs, but couldn’t really see anything.  She wheezed when she breathed.  I got some water into her with a dropper; if nothing else, maybe I could keep her hydrated.

The next day was pretty much the same.  She settled into the hay in the carrier but didn’t seem to be eating or drinking on her own.  She would stand stock still on the counter and we would look at each other.  I held a piece of bread in front of her, and she pecked at it, but seemed to have difficulty swallowing.  She was finding the water dropper irritating. 

The following day, we were having dinner at neighbor Bill’s restaurant when he casually asked how our chickens were doing.  We told him that something happened where one bird was dead and another injured.  Bill went on to tell us how a particularly small breed of weasel (a least weasel – Google it, if you don’t believe me) will get into an opening that small, and will draw the blood out of a small/weak bird.  We told him of how we found both birds, and he theorized that after killing one bird, they went for the other, but she may have been able to fight him off, sustaining the damage to her neck.  It made perfect sense.  I even knew where a weaselly weasel could have gotten in – a tiny opening that I had previously noticed but given no further thought to.  In the morning it was an opening no more.

Wheezy, meantime, continued to make painstakingly slow improvement.  By now (day four) she was really fed up with the dropper, and the chest swelling had gone down, but she could lower her head only by turning it sideways, and when she did, she lifted one foot up and shuffled sideways.  Eventually she was able to get eat mash of a dish.  My theory is she suffered some neurological damage, or a traumatic brain injury.  Either way, I seemed to now have a mildly retarded chicken on my hands. 

Larry, for all his skepticism of having a chicken rehabbing in the cold room, brought up the sides of a collapsible metal cage we had in the basement, and we added it to the front of the carrier.  Now she could go inside in the hay at night or whenever, and she could stand up and move around a bit in the day.  I think she appreciated having the extra leg room.

By day six, she seemed to have made all the improvements she was going to make in captivity.  We had reached the make it or break it point – she would either make good strides by being reunited with her sisters, or would take a beak-dive and die.  Either way, she couldn’t stay in the house anymore.  My biggest concern was her ability to roost – her balance still wasn’t great, and I didn’t know if she could get up on the pole with the others to stay warm at night.

I brought her out in the afternoon, when it was warmest (for the middle of December, anyway), and put her in the yard with the others.  One chicken immediately started pecking at her, and she ran away with her tormentor in pursuit.  But eventually the bully got tired of the game, and Wheezy then took her frustrations out by pecking at another bird.  Geesh.  I went back to the house and hoped for the best.

That night Wheezy did indeed roost with the others, and in the morning she was eating and drinking with everyone else, although she now has a style all her own.  Her walking has continued to improve and so has her head angle, although she is easy to pick out of the crowd.

Had she been suffering interminably that first day, I was ready to call our friend Farmer Mike and have him (finally) show me his method for a quiet and relaxed method of chickie euthanasia.  But I thought she might have a chance, and I was glad I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  Just like String Chickie.

Did I ever tell you the story of String Chickie?  No?  I’ll save that for another day.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Free Range Lucy

When people would ooh and aah over Lucy, our Holland Lop bunny, and say how cute she was, I would say, “Good thing she’s cute – that’s the only thing she has going for her.”  And people would chuckle at that snarky remark and look at me out of the corner of their eye like I was some evil person.  She was messy and destructive and really served no purpose, but in my heart I became ridiculously attached to her. 
Daughter Jessica, on break from college and visiting her dad in Galway, came home one night with a sheepish smile on her face, and presented me with Lucy, who she had rescued from one of those fates all too common to pet rabbits – having failed to keep the interest of the neighbor children she was bought for, she was going to be set loose in the woods to fend for herself.  Jessica couldn’t allow that (I’m sure mom and dad liked that payback), instead bringing her into our house where the worst she would have to fend off was a rambunctious kitten. 
Initially Lucy went back to college with Jessica, who thought she could keep a bunny hidden under her bed in her dorm room.  Even I could see how well that was going to work out.  Though she endeared herself to Jessica’s fellow art students and dorm mates, at the next school break Lucy came home for good.
Lucy came with a large Havahart cage and took up residence in the spare bedroom.  A friend gave us an outdoor hutch that with a little spiffing made a lovely outdoor condo.  We set her up on the porch of our home in the village, where the neighbors visited regularly with treats and little kids would squeal at the sight of her brown floppy ears.   Periodically Lucy would come in the house to stretch her legs and socialize.  Larry would often comment that rabbits were “livestock,” not really qualifying as “pets,” therefore should be, ahem, outside.  He was outvoted on this three to one.
Immediate rabbit-related lessons learned:  1)  Rabbits are FAST.  If they are not contained within an area, you’d better keep an eye on them.  2) Unless litter box trained, rabbits will poop indiscriminately.  We coined these lovely little nuggets coco puffs, as they looked just like the cereal.  “There are coco puffs by the woodstove, you better go clean it up.”  Oh, wait, I was talking to myself…  3)  Rabbits jump and kick out like little furry kungfu critters when they are happy.  This, unlike the coco puffs, is very amusing.  4)  Rabbits will eventually get the hang of stairs.  This skill is not gained without its share of mishaps.  We would hear the sound of tumbling and turn to see Lucy sitting on the bottom landing, shaking her head.
In a moment of suburban-induced insanity, I bought a harness for her at PetSmart so I could let her wander around in the grass.  My not-yet-husband watched me once with my rabbit-on-a-leash, and declared that there was not enough tequila in the world for him to do that.
When we moved to Schroon in 2005, we situated Lucy’s hutch next to the porch.  The porch was high enough that when we took off the top, it was level with the floor of the porch and she could hop out and roam around on the porch itself.  She enjoyed this freedom until she realized there were stairs (which, after a shortened learning curve, she mastered) that led to things far more interesting than this limiting level of life – like flowers to eat and a vegetable garden to plunder.  Unsurprisingly, she became difficult to catch.  One late summer day, after yet again diving unsuccessfully for her, I said the heck with it, stay out, take your chances with the fox and fishers and badgers.
Thus began the legend of Free Range Lucy.
Now mind you, where we live in Schroon is densely wooded.  We have wetlands on both sides of us, woods surrounding us, and across the road neighbors Bill and Dolores have a pond that attracts wildlife far and wide.  Bill and Dolores, along with their sons Bill and Denny (our friends and Larry’s hunting companions), are brimming with stories of household pets chased, treed, maimed and ultimately eaten by the resident predators.  Born story tellers, they were delighted to tell me these tales of horror.  Denny has scarred me with one particular tale of a pet cat who was dragged off their back steps by a predator, just as Fluffy reached the sliding glass door trying to gain entry.  I figured Lucy’s days were numbered, either by becoming part of the circle of life on the Hill, or running off with some stud bunny.  My consolation was the thought that she was living a good life – not trapped in the confines of a little hutch, but living Born Free, doing whatever it is that rabbits do, and having a grand old time of it.
Much to our surprise, Lucy stayed close to home.  I left the top off her hutch so she had her home-base option and kept it stocked with food and water.  But for the most part she hung out under the porch and in the front yard and made an adorable porch ornament.  Mike our mailman commented on how friendly she was when he had to drop a package off at the door.  Although she wouldn’t quite come when called, she would hang out around you and she was easy to pick up and pet.  When Larry was working on his brakes in the driveway, Lucy was happy to sit in the middle of his tools and pop across his lap while he worked on a part.  She was the happy recipient of our vegetable residue from the kitchen. 
For a homegrown rabbit, Lucy had a wide array of experiences.  She was with me the January day I totaled my car on the Northway.  I was working for Catholic Charities at the time and was bringing Lucy in to see the kids at the shelter.  She was in a large cat carrier in the back seat.  My car went into a long slide on a very icy road and WHAM – we smacked off the guardrail, leaving pieces in the road and us facing in the wrong direction.  Once I realized I wasn’t dead and found my glasses, I looked in the backseat to see Lucy flattened against the back of the carrier, with a look on her face of “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!?”  Luckily, we were both fine. 
Lucy and Bella, our younger cat, would chase each other around the yard.  With a network of paths around our house, you never knew when small furry animals would suddenly race past you.  While Bella was with Lucy since she was a kitten and they were used to playing together, our older cat Rocky was terrified of her.  Rocky was easily twice her size and weight, yet the mere sign of her would stop him in his tracks, and once she spotted him, she would rush at him, which sent the poor cat running in pure terror.  He never did get over his fear of her.
One time I saw Bella hovering over something in the grass, with Lucy right next to her, the two of them looking like co-conspirators.  When I got closer, I saw that Bella was eating a mouse, with Lucy looking on curiously.  I told Larry about this, and he said, “Oooooh, that’s just not right.”
As the weather turned colder, we felt for sure that Lucy’s days were numbered.  But almost every morning she would be out in the yard, and when I came home from work she would be around – on the porch invariably leaving cocoa puffs or in the driveway.  Friend Bill said, “If that rabbit makes it to February, she’ll be a real Adirondack rabbit.”
I thought winter would surely be her downfall.  Dark brown, she stood out against the snow in our paths.  Hungry predators would find her an easy mark.  Sometimes we wouldn’t see her for a day or two, but then there she was, around the corner on the porch or coming down the path from somewhere. 
Spring came and Lucy continued to thrive.  No baby bunnies that we saw, so I don’t think there was a boyfriend in the wings somewhere.  And I had never seen another rabbit in the area. 
Then, in early summer, came the phone call we had been dreading, from our neighbors across the street:  “Your rabbit is in our garden.”
Lucy was grounded.  Once again confined to her hutch, she went from being a Happy Bunny to being a Bitter Bunny.  You could see how ticked off her was.  Unfortunately, she brought this on herself by the fault of her own instinct, and now she was paying the price. 
Summer crept on in its heat and humidity. In late August, Dolores said the deer had pretty much wiped out her garden, so Lucy was granted early release.  Once more, she raced around the yard, greeted us on the porch, and rock hopped with Bella.
Then towards the end of September, as Larry was leaving for work, I looked around the driveway.  “Have you seen Lucy lately?” I asked, suddenly unable to recall exactly when I’d seen her last.  He said he hadn’t.  Oh well, I figured she must be around.  She didn’t make an appearance that night, nor the next morning.  My heart began to sink as I figured the inevitable has occurred.  As the days turned into weeks, I knew she was really gone this time.
In all honesty, I found it hard to be sad that she was gone, not because I thought she was a pest or didn’t like her – to the contrary, she endeared herself as I never expected she would.  I wasn’t sad because I knew, as domesticated bunnies went, she had probably lived an exceptional life, full of excitement and contentment and lots of affection.  I could feel good about what we were able to give her.  Even though she has been gone several years now, every once in a while when I step on the porch I think I see a coco puff and I catch my breath, and then I see it’s just a piece of bark or dirt. 
Thanks, Lulu, for adding your little furry dimension to my life.
CORRECTION:  The blog I recommended in my first post is at 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Welcome to the 30 Acre Wood!

Hello and welcome to my blog!  Yes, I am finally knuckling down and doing this, after months of debating whether I really wanted to or not, pondering the advantages of a blog over MySpace or FaceBook or a website.  Part of my hesitation is the fact that we, up here on the Hill, are prisoners of dialup internet service, which does teach you patience on a good day, and expands your expletive vocabulary on a bad day.  For instance, a full fifteen minutes have passed from the moment I turned my computer on to get to the window for me to type this post.  And, I am still having trouble getting photos posted here, but bear with me, because I am nothing if not tenacious. 
My goal for this blog is purely self serving – to exercise my writing muscles on a more regular basis, as I do like writing about myself, and this kills two birds with one stone.  Plus, I find my life with Hubby here in Schroon Lake endlessly entertaining – and I guess I want you to think so, too.  All the writers’ online chat encourages an enterprising writer, as I consider myself (notice I didn’t say enterprising young writer) to blog or something similar, and I have seen some terrific blogs recently (i.e. The Hermit Crab here on blogspot, I love cranky people who can write well).  Hence, I am joining the ranks, and maybe nobody will ever see this, but screw it, I’m doing it anyway.
For the uniniated, some quick background:  Hubby Larry Phillips and I reside on 30 mostly wooded acres on Charley Hill Road in Schroon Lake, in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.  I consider ourselves “quasi-homesteaders” in that we strive to be as self sufficient as possible but still sadly pay National Grid every month and do spring for season passes for skiing.  We have two elderly horses – 29 year old Cass, my grumpy and long suffering Quarter Horse that I’ve shared my life with for 24 years and Katie, a 26ish year old mini mare whose purpose is not to be your friend, thank you – our two cats who are our children now that we are empty nesters, and a flock of 11 barred rocks who are choosing increasingly cold November to go into their first molt.
We heat entirely with wood that Hubby drags out of our woods with our 1952 Ford 8N.  We have several small gardens going in the summer, which are a never ending learning process.  I, for one, am not personally adept with things vegetative, but I am determined to keep things growing, dammit, and I do enjoy weeding (it’s a Zen thing, right up there with cleaning stalls, stacking wood, and pulling weeds out of the pasture).  While Hubby enjoys the gardens, I consider myself more of a rancher.  I have always enjoyed animal husbandry and personally feel that’s where my strengths lie.
Of our thirty acres we cleared approximately three for pasture starting about five years ago.  This is work not for the fainthearted nor weak of back.  It is also something we will never EVER do again.  But we have three lovely, rolling hills of wanna-be pasture, the property’s former stone walls once again exposed to the sun, rocks of all sizes rearing their ugly heads, and a rave of weeds threatening to take over the world as we coax and encourage our grass seed to take a stand. 
We had a 30 x 24 barn frame built by Bill Christian and his wonderful crew that we spent the summer of 2005 finishing (well, almost finishing, but that’s for another day).  We got our hens last year and I built a little coop for them.  Our house is an old turn of the century farmhouse, small and cozy, an ongoing project in itself.  We are hardly master carpenters but we do get the important things done, and there are plenty of things that we just choose to live with (like the Havitrail features within its walls).
So, that’s the basic groundwork for what I’ll be writing about.  I hope you’ll check in periodically and that you’ll find these entries interesting, and I hope you post a comment if you’re so inclined.  I am so very, very lucky to live where I do, with the man in my life, and the work here on the homestead that keeps me grounded.  Thanks for reading!